Oscars’ ‘Kanye moment’ shouldn’t overshadow history

OPINION - Geoffrey Fletcher's historic win for best adapted screenplay is as monumental as Hattie McDaniel's, Sidney Poitier's and Halle Berry's...

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Mo’Nique’s best supporting actress Oscar victory is definitely cause for celebration, especially in light of the much needed deference she gave Hattie McDaniel, whose many talents have long been overshadowed by the fact that she won her Oscar playing the stereotypical role of “Mammy.” As the Academy Awards continue to evolve, it’s most refreshing that Baltimore’s finest wasn’t the only African-American sitting at the table. The wins of Geoffrey Fletcher for best adapted screenplay and Roger Ross Williams for best documentary short are equally monumental.

For anyone who read Push when it first came out, it was hard to envision a film version. Literature and film are two different mediums and so often when African-American books, or any book for that matter, are adapted for the screen, the film version falls short. As I sat at a packed screening for Precious at the Cannes Film Festival mostly among people whose first language was not English, I was amazed by Geoffrey Fletcher’s adaptation.

There were many people not of color with tears in their eyes, so moved by the story of a young black girl growing up in Harlem, abused by her parents, obese and unable to read. The story was so removed in many ways from their own lives. Yet, they did not pity her; instead, they felt for her. They imagined her pain and celebrated her resilience. That’s the power of the written word.

Screenwriting is also a craft and it’s equally important that black people are given a chance to master that as well. What’s an actor without words? A director without a story? If there is no script, there is no film. So Geoffrey Fletcher’s historic win, the first for an African-American in the best adapted screenplay category, is as monumental as Hattie McDaniel’s, Sidney Poitier’s and Halle Berry’s. That he adapted a book written by an African-American is even more empowering.

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But the producer is pretty darn important too. Yes Lee Daniels has been heralded for his visionary filmmaking as he should be. But Broderick Johnson and Yolanda T. Cochran, who produced The Blind Side, have gone largely unnoticed. Johnson is the co-founder of Alcon Entertainment, which also made The Book of Eli. Alcon’s first major film was My Dog Skip. He produced The Blind Side and Cochran co-produced. Without them, finding and cultivating the story and, even better, raising the money to make the film, Sandra Bullock could not shine.

Even more neglected is the documentary short film. Shorts don’t have a large audience to begin with. For the most part, they really are works appreciated by one’s peers but still the short is an important training ground for many filmmakers. Add in the fact that it’s a documentary short and it’s little wonder that few had ever heard of Roger Ross Williams prior to his Oscar win for Music by Prudence, which he produced and directed.

Perhaps the media attention Music by Prudence producer Elinor Burkett is generating for the disruption of Roger Ross William’s acceptance speech (in what many are describing as a “Kanye” moment), a curious act considering that she’s now vocal about not agreeing with the winning version’s direction, bodes well for the film. Thanks to Ms. Burkett’s unchecked ego, more people are talking about the film, giving Williams and, more importantly, the amazing Prudence, a Zimbabwe native who was born deformed and disabled, attention they might not otherwise receive. In Zimbabwe, such conditions are believed to be the result of witchcraft and such persons are usually killed. Miraculously Prudence was spared and, today, her powerful voice is compared to Aretha Franklin’s. HBO will premiere the short in May.

The 2010 Oscars is not just noteworthy because Mo’Nique won or Elinor Burkett pulled a Kanye. For the first time, diversity got a major starring role at the Oscars. From the presenters that included Zoe Saldana, Samuel L. Jackson, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, many of whom played key roles in some of 2009’s best films, to unexpected winners like Roger Ross Williams and Geoffrey Fletcher, not to mention other contributors like Anthony Mackie of The Hurt Locker and The Blind Side producers Broderick Johnson and Yolanda T. Cochran, this Oscars will be remembered for showing what a film world embracing of all budgets and people, as well as forms and unlikely contributors, can truly look like. So, along with Mo’Nique, we must all “thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics.”